The travelers stayed where they were for the rest of that night. It was hard for them to get back to sleep, but the high ground was a good defensive position and the trees were there to fall back into in case whatever scared the bokarus decided to show up.
By morning, most of the herd had wandered off and everyone took a deep breath. There were predators in the night that came to feast on the beasts they had to shoot, and even then they could see the vultures shredding the remains, but that was far enough away so as not to cause concern.
Alexis was rinsing out her pot when she saw the man in the distance. He stood straight and tall and held a spear that was half-again his height.
“What do you think he wants?” Lincoln whispered to her. Alexis shrugged and went back to her work. They packed the camp and even as Doctor Procter checked the amulet, the distant man began to trot toward them. Lockhart made them wait.
The man was tall and dark skinned which caused Lincoln to comment. “He looks more like a Massai warrior than a North African.”
“No Phoenician, Roman, Visigoth or Arab blood in him yet,” Lieutenant Harper responded first.
“Yes. Very good,” Mingus praised her even as Captain Decker raised his gun to ready position.
“Halloo.” The man called when he was still distant. “You were in the stampede. I hope everyone is alright.”
“Yes, thank you,” Lockhart shouted back as the man began to come up the rise. He looked once at Captain Decker and his dark skin before he turned to the speaker.
“You are from the land of the Great River?” The man asked.
“We are travelers,” Lockhart said. “And you live in this land?”
The man pointed and Lockhart saw that Doctor Procter confirmed that it was the right direction for them as well. “But it is only our camp. We are also travelers. We follow after the herd.”
“My name is Lockhart,” he said and this time he forcibly took the man’s hand and shook it. Then he introduced everyone around. After the man got the idea, the man grinned and shook everyone’s hand except the elves. He merely stared at them and Doctor Procter did not offer his hand.
“I am Atonis,” he said at last. “If you are traveling in my direction you must come and stay the night in my camp. You will be safe there from the stampede and the beasts of the night.”
Lockhart simply nodded, so Alexis spoke. “Thank you.”
“My camp is a whole day from here,” the man spoke again after they started to walk.
“Perhaps we can add some meat to your fire,” Boston tried to be cordial.
“Along the way we will have to do lunch,” Lockhart told her. “And you thought that expression just belonged to your generation.” Lockhart looked back. Mingus and Roland were on the flanks. Decker and Harper were in rear guard position. Lincoln and Alexis were in front of the marines and Lincoln was jotting something down in his notebook. Boston was on his heels or beside him, and Doctor Procter was wandering aimlessly in the middle, not even looking at his amulet.
“I must ask,” Atonis said after a while. “I heard the wail of the spirit in the night. I was not surprised to see the herd start to run. But tell me, do you know what makes this sound?”
“A bokarus,” Boston spoke right up. “A green man. It is a spirit of the wild. It protects the wilderness and hates any human intrusion that interferes with the natural order of things.”
“And it is following us,” Lockhart added and looked back at Doctor Procter, but this time the doctor made no objection. More likely, the Doctor did not hear.
“I have heard this once before,” Atonis said. “This spirit is not a good thing.” He said no more about it until lunch. Roland brought in a gazelle after only a few minutes chase, and Mingus got a fire started. Alexis made bread but that was the only thing that opened Atonis’ eyes. Clearly he knew what the elves were and was not going to be surprised at anything they might do.
It was a good lunch but they overstayed their time, first because Boston explained why they were traveling with two spirits of the earth, as Atonis called the elves; and then Atonis told the story of his first encounter with the bokarus.
“It was three years ago and my friend Mumbai was to celebrate the marriage of his daughter to a good man. He wanted to build a great celebration fire and so he had us gather all the wood in the little forest that we could find. It was not enough for him, so he took a sharp stone and cut many young trees to add to the fire. They did not burn well, being green, but Mumbai was determined that his daughter should have the biggest fire, ever.
“As we celebrated, we were interrupted in the night by the wail of the angry spirit. It flew like a bird in the sky around and around. The wind became strong and people fell to their knees, afraid of the sound and the wind. We were all afraid. All at once, the wind picked Mumbai up off the ground and threw him into the heart of the great fire. People screamed and the bokarus left us as we pulled my friend from the fire.
“His clothes were burned to him and could not be taken off him. He had great swellings of white bubbles everywhere that burst and made him smell of cooked meat. Much of his body was charred like the ash after the fire is done. He was in great pain and in the morning he died.
“Many said then that we should go to the village of Neamon and dwell there with the village people. They said the grasslands were becoming too dangerous, but many said no. We have lived well since then, but we have not forgotten. And now that the bokarus is back, I do not know what we will do.”
Everyone said they were sorry and Boston and Alexis hugged the man while he cried. Lincoln handed him a handkerchief and got him to blow his nose. It was already late when they started walking again.
“It will be dark before we arrive,” Atonis said. “But with this host of people, I expect no trouble.” Lockhart and Lincoln both looked back and wondered if what scared off the bokarus might follow them after dark, but neither said a word.